He was hush-voiced and demon-haunted, and when he died from mysterious stab wounds on Oct. 21, 2003, much of the music world merely sighed with presumption. Nick Drake, they said. Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain. It seemed the same with Elliott Smith. Another somber songwriter gone too soon.
Five years later, we've gotten two posthumous releases—one half-done by
Smith, the other a collection of rare and unreleased
recordings. Did he ever peak? His work was so expansive. Often
melancholic, like his public persona, but also philosophic,
After all, Smith was a tangled, patchwork figure whose battles with drugs and depression made up aspects of his person—but not all of it. He was flawed, but great, and he gave us many moments to remember from his career. Here are five favorites:
1. "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down" (Hank Williams, Jr. cover) - Live at Largo
This live recording appeared with a
retrospective book put together by Autumn de Wilde, Beck Hansen and
Chris Walla. Smith begins with a chuckled invitation
("You wanna hear a country song?") and proceeds to giggle and scat forgotten lines throughout, displaying his rarely documented droll loveability.
2. "Miss Misery" (Live at the Academy Awards) - Good Will Hunting
filmmakers like Gus van Sant, Wes Anderson and Mike Mills. And for good reason: his cinematic subtlety earned a best-song nomination for Good Will
Hunting's use of "Miss Misery." He did not want to appear at the Oscars, but when told that
the song would be performed with or without him, he agreed. In an ill-fitting white suit, he gave this dour,
devastating performance. When he sings "I know you'd rather see me
gone / than to see me the way that I am / but I am in the life anyway,"
his aim seems to extend far beyond any definable target towards—truly—everyone.
3. "Plainclothes Man" - Mic City Sons (Heatmiser)
Before he went solo, Smith's Portland "queercore" band (so referred due to gay bandmate Neil Gust) Heatmiser released three full-length albums.Smith grew frustrated with the group's excessive volume, which he felt hid
songs' nuances, leading to the recording of solo records Roman Candle (1994) andElliott Smith (1995) before the band split up. "Plainclothes Man" intimates the sound he would continue to pursue on his own, even though it was released on Mic City Sons after Smith had already left the group.
4. "King's Crossing" - From A Basement On The Hill
(Full track here)
5. "Happiness" - Figure 8
The song aches at joints and angles, Smith at his best in a fine mess of wist and wish. As with many of his songs, he multi-tracks vocals here like he's keeping himself
company. The outro could very well go on forever: "What I used to be / will pass away / and then you'll see / But all I want now / is happiness for you and me..."